What follows is Part Two of a five part series about the groundbreaking and visionary French-Canadian progressive metal band Voivod. Part One can be found here.
Coming off the relative success of Nothingface, Voivod entered the studio in late 1990 with renowned producer Terry Brown. Brown is best known for producing every Rush studio album from 1975’s excellent Fly By Night through 1982’s excellent Signals, along with one live Rush album (1981’s also excellent Exit…Stage Left). The result of their collaboration, Angel Rat, was the band’s second release for Mechanic Records. Brown’s production, along with the record label’s meddling, caused some friction among the band members, and Blacky left the band before the album was released in November 1991. Angel Rat was largely maligned by long-time fans of the band (many of whom still dislike it), and upon first listen, it’s kind of hard to believe that the same band that recorded “Build Your Weapons” back in 1986 could be responsible for a song like “The Prow” a mere five years later. However, sad as I often am that I didn’t get into Voivod earlier, I am fortunate to have heard Angel Rat with a different kind of ears than many Voivod fans. I had no precedent of “Live for Violence”, “Thrashing Rage”, or “Tornado” to color my initial impressions of this work.
The Angel Rat era, along with the departure of Blacky, marked the beginning of what is regarded among some Voivod fans as “Voivod Mark II”. The music is less complicated than on the previous three albums, much less heavy than on the previous five albums. Part of this is due to the fact that, according to Away, “We had spent the whole ’80s being tight and precise, to the point where around the era of Dimension Hatröss, the music was so complicated we almost didn’t have any interaction with the crowd anymore because we were concentrating so hard on our instruments.” The opening bands on Voivod’s US tour for Nothingface (Faith No More and Soundgarden) had an effect on the music as well. Along with this, the members of Voivod were simply continuing to evolve, both as musicians and as human beings. (One review for Angel Rat on Metal Archives sums the situation up quite elegantly: “…the band embraced the 90’s with their mind on the past but both eyes on the future, as there is no space for the present in the ranks of Voivod.”)
Angel Rat is also the first Voivod album that does not fit into Away’s original concept, which is covered at length in Part One. The songs are not connected by any kind of theme, other than the fact that Away was reading a lot of folk tales at the time. “But, Joel, what about the songs?” I’m glad you asked.
The songs on Angel Rat are beautifully crafted. The lyrics are best described as “more introspective” than nearly any of the songs that came before them. Piggy’s riffs and solos feel simultaneously retro and futuristic. Away’s timekeeping is still off-kilter enough to remind you that you’re not listening to the average metal band. (I once played the album for a friend who was new to Voivod, thinking he might find it more listenable than the previous albums, and he said to me, “Joel, this is still weird. You don’t think it’s weird because the rest of their stuff is so much weirder, but it’s still very weird.”) Snake’s vocal style continued to evolve (in some instances, he even sings!), and as always, his voice writhes and twists and slithers its way around and through the music. And last but not least, Blacky’s bass is as tight and commanding as ever, even if you do have to listen extra hard to hear it sometimes. Which provides a nice segue into the only problem with Angel Rat, stylistically, as I see it: the mix is so paper-thin that the songs simply lack heft. For evidence of this, let’s look at three different versions of the album’s only single, “Clouds in My House”.
Exhibit A: the official video, which features the Album Version.
Exhibit B: the Demo Version, which features more heft.
Exhibit C: the Remixed Version from the Angel Rat Sampler (created and released without the band’s consent), which features elements of the Demo Version, but used in a non-appealing way.
After hearing both the full album and the full demo, I can’t help but believe that something in between the two (but leaning a bit closer to the demo) must have been pretty close to what the band had in mind when they were visualizing the completed work. And that remix is seriously fucked, right?
There isn’t a song on Angel Rat that I don’t like, but here are my other favorites:
“The Prow” – I love Piggy’s soloing in this one!
“Nuage Fractal” – This one contains some of my favorite Voivod lyrics, and probably sounds the most like “classic Voivod”, from a musical standpoint.
“Freedoom” – This one also contains some of my favorite Voivod lyrics, and one time, while on mushrooms, I used it to control the weather. It was pretty badass.
When the band was ready to begin working on the follow-up to Angel Rat, they were faced with the unenviable task of replacing one of the best, most distinct bass players in metal. They ultimately decided that they were not ready to bring in a permanent replacement, so they hired a session bassist named Pierre St-Jean, and soldiered onward to record one hell of a fine official major label (MCA) debut album, 1993’s The Outer Limits. Musically, TOL had some things in common with its predecessor, as the song structures were again comparatively more straightforward, and not so “weird”, although the mix was beefed up to levels much more appropriate for the songs at hand. And as for the lyrics and artwork, the album found itself nestled back into more familiar sci-fi territory, although Korgull the Exterminator was still nowhere to be found.
This is my favorite Voivod album, from an artwork and packaging standpoint. The artwork is inspired by 1950’s pulp science fiction magazines like Amazing Stories, and the fact that it was released on a major label meant the band had more money to spend, so Away had the artwork rendered in 3D, and a pair of 3D glasses was included in the original packaging! Tangent: I once had a dream that I found two brand new shrink-wrapped copies of The Outer Limits on vinyl at a Goodwill store in Seattle. I woke up sad from that one.
All the songs on The Outer Limits are phenomenal, but the crowning jewels of the album, without a doubt, are the extra spooky “Le Pont Noir” (“The Black Spot” in French), in which the narrator wanders down to a spooky bridge at night, not knowing what he’ll find (spoiler alert: he finds trouble), and the 17-minute-plus “Jack Luminous”, which tells the story of an alien who arrives on Earth to warn mankind that President X-D is about to arrive on their television screens to take over their minds. Other standout tracks are “Time Warp” and album opener “Fix My Heart”. The band also took another stab at another lesser known Pink Floyd tune (“The Nile Song”, which originally appeared on that band’s excellent soundtrack to the 1969 Barbet Shchroeder film More), and while it is a damn fine version of a damn fine song, it lacks the stark beauty of Nothingace‘s “Astronomy Domine”.
“Le Pont Noir” – So, so spooky.
“Jack Luminous” – The band has been playing this one live over the past couple of years, and that is both amazing and exciting.
“Time Warp” – I fucking love the guitars on this song!
“Fix My Heart” – I have nothing extra to add to this one. It’s really fucking good.
Bonus pro tip: The Outer Limits is the perfect soundtrack to sitting outside and watching the night sky.
Following the tour cycle for The Outer Limits, a huge curveball was thrown the band, and the sound of Voivod was about to change as drastically as it ever had. That will be discussed in Part Three, which will be along soon-ish. Until then, stay heavy, heavy people.